General Conference 2019 was a disaster. Our fallen natures were revealed. Our brokenness exposed. Regardless of your thoughts on the outcome, the process revealed an undeniable level of dysfunction witnessed by thousands on live stream. The secret is out. We are not just a declining denomination; we are messed up.
Remember St. Louis.
We can’t do that again.
The United Methodist denomination is currently engaged in a series of micro-battles in which we will elect delegates for the 2020 General Conference; our next macro-battle. I assure you there will be no winners. Regardless of the outcomes. The gloves are off (a hockey metaphor), civility is a distant memory and we are significantly more angry, cynical and battle hardened than we were a year ago.
The mantra seems to be, “It’s all about politics.” Even in conferences where it has never been all about politics; it is all about the politics. Slates are determined and strategies are agreed upon; the games have begun. We will await the outcomes (which will be interpreted through a political lens) and build a narrative for 2020 but it won’t matter. Relationships will be further damaged, crafted rumors will circulate, conspiracy theories will abound and any remaining trust receptors will be fried. Guaranteed.
The question is not, “Can we find a path forward despite very different understandings concerning human sexuality?” The answer is “NO. No we can not.” We have determined this through our own processes and our collective response to the outcomes. That is SO last spring anyway. So we can: 1) Stay and fight or 2) Divide, speak peace to the crap-storm and try to find our way back on mission.
I choose option number two.
The current question before us is, “How do we peacefully and strategically part ways?” It is actually a very different question than we asked this spring. It is the only functional question at this point in our history. Dividing up a huge denomination is complex but it begins with a clear decision to do so. And what is my hope for General Conference 2020? A clear statement indicating, “We will peacefully divide and strategically reorganize for the good of our mission.” It is time to stop doing harm, defying church law, pressing charges, holding mock trials and playing this endless game of “ecclesiastical chicken.” It is time to allow pastors, congregations, conferences and perhaps jurisdictions, to graciously move on to whatever is next for them.
Here is what seems clear:
- Our differences are irreconcilable
- Our present is unsustainable
- Our dysfunction is ingrained
- There are mutually exclusive visions of the future
- There is no middle ground
- Trust clauses are anachronistic
- The exit path needs to be gracious, fair and standardized
- Fear, coercion and legal threats are not functional ways to hold a denomination together
- We failed in our attempt to stay together
- It is time to separate
I must confess that I am tired. Gut tired. I didn’t get into ministry to fuss with other Methodists. I got into ministry to tell people about Jesus. The dysfunctions of our denomination are adversely affecting our ability to connect people with Jesus Christ in our local church contexts and that is unacceptable. I don’t want to sit and spend my life propping up an institution. I want to be swept up in a movement of the Holy Spirit.
As we vote for 2020 General and Jurisdictional delegates, I completely get supporting people who share our respective positions; but might I suggest one additional filter? Let’s ask candidates about their vision for the future. And might we even consider supporting a candidate who shares a clear vision for amicable separation regardless of where they sit on a theological or political spectrum?
We need to shift our narrative from “entrenched conflict” to “strategic separation.” If we don’t act quickly, the next question will be, “Who wants to stay in a dysfunctional denomination?” I am guessing that line will be getting shorter by the day.
Sometimes you just need to shake hands and go your separate ways while you can still shake hands…
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop is a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church (2010) and has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997. Shane is the author of “Love God. Love People. Don’t Do Dumb Crap.”